If you’ve ever had a friend dismiss your frustrations by telling you to lighten up and think positively, you’ve encountered toxic positivity.
“Toxic positivity” is a term you might’ve come across before. It’s the idea that, no matter what, you need to remain positive and that you should never feel or express negative emotions.
Although toxic positivity can be harmful to everyone, it can be uniquely problematic for people who have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), like me.
Positive thinking can look like being grateful for the good in your life, looking on the bright side when you’re feeling down, and employing a can-do attitude when you encounter challenges.
The term “toxic positivity” refers to the idea that you should always think positively to the point where you shouldn’t express any negative feelings. In other words, it’s taking positive thinking to an extreme by negating the natural negative aspect of some life situations.
Here are a few examples of how toxic positivity can look:
- When you complain to a friend that your boss is overworking and underpaying you, they tell you not to think that and instead be grateful for your job.
- When you tell your family member that you’re feeling down in the dumps, they tell you to just “change your mindset” and “choose happiness” instead of listening to you.
- When you point out that a system at work is inefficient, your colleague tells you to stop being negative instead of exploring ways to optimize it.
- When you talk about a traumatic event you went through, others tell you to move on and stop dwelling on the past.
Toxic positivity can be harmful because:
- Talking about your negative feelings and experiences isn’t “bad” but is often necessary to help you heal.
- Negating everything that may be perceived as negative can lead to dismissing valid feedback.
- We can only address harmful ideas/experiences/systems once we acknowledge them.
- Sometimes, we need help, support, and a sympathetic ear to feel better.
- It encourages you to hide your true feelings and pretend you’re fine when you’re not.
- Maintaining a positive mindset does not immunize you against harm.
While one person with OCD might have obsessions and compulsions around cleanliness, another might have obsessions and compulsions around fire.
Pretty much anything can be the subject (or theme) of your OCD.
And yes, toxic positivity can be a part of your OCD symptoms.
People with OCD are more likely to fall into the trap of magical thinking.
Magical thinking is an irrational way of thinking — that is, one that isn’t based on evidence. Instead, magical thinking is based on the idea that your thoughts alone can change the outcome of an event — even when there’s no clear relation between the two.
Everyone engages in magical thinking from time to time. You might pause to visualize yourself with lots of money right before pulling the lever on a slot machine. You might hold your thumbs and wear the same T-shirt when watching your favorite football team play a match.
But in OCD, magical thinking can go a step beyond and form the basis of an obsession. You might think:
- “I had a terrible intrusive thought that I hurt someone. This must mean that I actually will hurt someone.”
- “I dreamed that a hurricane happened, and a few weeks later, a hurricane killed hundreds of people. It must be my fault.”
- “I have a fear of being hit by a truck, but if I think about it too much, I might manifest it.”
People with OCD might think that engaging in compulsions — rituals — will soothe the distress caused by these thoughts or stop their thoughts from manifesting.
In my case, a lot of my magical thinking is connected to toxic positivity.
“I have to think positively, or bad things will keep coming to me.”
“If I just don’t think about how sad and hurt I am, it’ll go away.”
“I have to be grateful for the blessings in my life. If I’m not grateful, they’ll disappear.”
These are all examples of how magical thinking can manifest as toxic positivity. For me, these thoughts are dangerous: if I don’t address them head-on, they can develop into full-blown obsessions.
Toxic positivity can be accompanied by compulsions, too. My compulsions have included listing things I’m grateful for and repeating positive mantras to “neutralize” my negative thoughts.
I’ve developed really unhealthy habits around forcing myself to “think positively” to stop my fears from manifesting.
The astounding thing, though, is that we live in a society where we often hear the above messages repeated as if it’s the truth. In this way, our culture of toxic positivity enables and reinforces magical thinking.
On a rational level, I know for a fact that ignoring hurt doesn’t make it disappear. I also know that my family, pets, home, and job won’t disappear instantly if I don’t take the time to be grateful for them.
But on a subconscious level, it’s hard not to buy into those messages — especially when I hear them repeated on podcasts, books, and social media.
If you have OCD, toxic positivity can be particularly damaging.
I personally love a simple rule that I don’t have to think about. I’m very tempted by the idea that I can fix everything by simply being optimistic, so I find it hard not to get sucked into that mindset.
I’m still battling to break free from toxic positivity, but I find that the following approaches help me.
Identifying toxic positivity is the first step in addressing it. But it’s hard to identify toxic positivity because it’s often filled with half-truths.
Yes, employing an optimistic state of mind can be helpful in many situations.
Yes, practicing gratitude does improve your mental health.
Yes, sometimes dwelling on the past and overthinking a traumatic experience can make you feel worse.
So, what makes toxic positivity a problem is not positivity but toxicity.
Positive thinking becomes toxic when you’re expected not to feel your feelings or when you feel the need to pretend you’re happy when you’re not. It becomes toxic when you feel like you need to self-censor so that you don’t appear ungrateful or negative. It becomes toxic when you feel bad just for feeling bad.
The beauty of therapy is that you have a safe space to process your feelings, whether they’re negative or positive. A therapist — a good therapist, at least — won’t dismiss your frustrations and hurt by telling you to lighten up.
Therapy is also an effective treatment for OCD.
Although you can’t cure OCD, therapy can help you manage your symptoms in a healthy way so that you feel and function better.
When I realize that I’m engaging in magical thinking, I try to stop myself and think about it more rationally. This isn’t always easy to do if you have OCD, but it’s something therapy can help with.
I find it helpful to remind myself that I don’t have to “think positively” all the time to be happy.
I often give myself reminders like:
- My mental illness isn’t a choice. I can choose to make healthy choices to manage my symptoms, but I didn’t choose to have this disorder.
- Everybody feels sad, frustrated, angry, and hurt sometimes. It’s healthy to express those emotions.
- My thoughts are worth exploring in a compassionate way, but they don’t magically cause natural disasters or determine other people’s actions.
- Sometimes, things suck. Pretending that they don’t suck doesn’t make them suck any less.
To be honest, I struggle to identify magical thinking and give myself these reminders unless I’m journaling about it. Journaling has been a helpful tool for helping me untangle the thoughts in my head.
Something I’ve learned through therapy is that pushing down negative feelings doesn’t make you feel better. In the long run, it can actually be quite harmful.
We need to acknowledge the ugly parts of ourselves to improve as human beings. We need to acknowledge the painful parts of our past to process it. We need to be honest about what’s not working in our relationships to make them better.
While it’s tempting to think that a “good vibes only” mindset will cure your hurt, you need to embrace all vibes to heal.
So, let yourself feel those difficult feelings. Give yourself the space and resources to work through them. And remember that positive vibes are welcome but not a requirement.
Psych Central empowers people to describe lived experiences using language that feels right to them. We do this by sharing perspectives from members of the mental health community. The views expressed by the author do not necessarily represent the opinions, voice, or stance of Psych Central.